We often hear the fight for justice described as a “struggle.” But Dr. Kamilah Majied believes that this struggle can be and has been joyful. In her view, justice is inextricable from joy, and it involves accessing the inner joy that is available to us when we treat ourselves and others as enlightened beings.

Dr. Majied is a mental health therapist, clinical educator, and consultant on advancing equity and inclusion through contemplative practice. In her new book, Joyfully Just: Black Wisdom and Buddhist Insights for Liberated Living, she draws from Black cultural traditions and the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism to lay out a path to justice that is grounded in courage, curiosity, and embodied joy.

In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Dr. Majied to discuss the parallels between Buddhism and Black wisdom traditions, why she believes joy is a mode of self-transcendence, and how we can learn to suffer without being insufferable. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, and then listen to the full episode.

You discuss the importance of fierce compassion, or a type of compassion that challenges our complacency and facilitates growth. Can you say more about the power of fierce compassion? When I talk about fierce compassion, I’m talking about the compassion to spur ourselves to growth. It can certainly be a compassionate thing to get ourselves a good massage. However, it can also be compassionate to get a colonoscopy or a breast exam. These are highly uncomfortable and very compassionate acts toward ourselves. Compassion is not always comfortable.

When we’re trying to support one another in growing our capacity to be just toward ourselves and one another, it’s going to get uncomfortable sometimes, and we have to have fierce compassion for one another to do so. We may think that letting people do things or say things that are harmful is compassionate, but it’s really negligent. When we offer fierce compassion, we’re saying, “Hey, guess what? You could see this more broadly, more justly, and I believe in your capacity to do so.” However, in order to receive that kind of compassion, we have to have what’s called discomfort resilience. We can’t run away every time we’re uncomfortable. We can’t be so fragile that we can’t bear being corrected, because then how will we ever grow?

Right, it’s working against our tendency to become obsessed with our own comfort. You also describe how fierce compassion can help us face social oppression and injustice, including helping us to see through the delusions of white supremacy culture. Can you say more about how you understand white supremacy as a delusion or a cognitive distortion? Absolutely. Tema Okun articulates these characteristics of white supremacy really well. What is meant by the notion of white supremacy is the idea that Eurocentric ways of seeing and doing and knowing are the right way and that other ways of being, doing, and knowing are inferior. That gets manifested in a lot of different subtle and not so subtle ways.

White supremacy is not something that only white people enact. Tema Okun describes it as the water we’re all swimming in, the way we expect to see things and experience things. These are delusions or cognitive distortions in that they diminish the value in humanity of other beings around us. They place certain humans at the top and relegate others to lower value.

We see this in education. I’ve been a teacher for over twenty years, and how much does anybody know about the great Asian authors? How much did we learn about that in high school or even in college? How much did we learn about Black mental health and psychoanalytic leaders? We’ve all been contaminated by white supremacy culture, and now we have to unlearn it and reclaim the reality of all of humanity’s contributions and value.

We all have these cognitive distortions that lead us to be biased in these ways. But with deep practice, we can create some space between the biased thought and the action we might take, and we can really shift.

“We can recognize ourselves as part of the community of beings forever coming to know, forever unlearning what we thought was reality because we’re growing. You’re not growing if you know everything.”

One of the delusions you explore is our right to comfort, and you say that clinging to expectations of comfort can cause us to suffer unnecessarily. How can we learn to let go of our expectation of comfort? Tema Okun talks about this as a characteristic of white supremacy because we hear people say, “I don’t want to talk about racism. It just makes me uncomfortable.” 6-year-olds experience racism, and they have to talk with their parents about how to navigate interactions with white adults and police. It’s like saying, “Yeah, if you’re Black, you have to deal with those discomforts. But if I’m white, then I have a right to comfort and not being made uncomfortable.”

We often resist the discomfort of being more just. I might think that it’s more comfortable for me not to have to be just toward you. But that’s defining comfort very narrowly. The more we step out of what we believe to be our comfort zone, the bigger that zone grows until the whole world is our comfort zone. But it’s not comfort in the sense of “I feel good all the time.” We’re going to be very distressed if we expect to feel good all the time.

“When we let go of the idea that we’re supposed to be comfortable all the time, then we can suffer without being insufferable.”

It’s like having a cold. You can have a cold and be joyful. You don’t have to be angry about it. You don’t have to invest in the emotional energy of anger. That anger only comes from our feeling like we shouldn’t have to suffer. When we let go of the idea that we’re supposed to be comfortable all the time, then we can suffer without being insufferable.

Pain is information. Pain is a doorway. There’s a lot of joyful information in pain if we can walk through the pain door with equanimity and with the awareness that people suffer and we’re supposed to be uncomfortable sometimes. Approaching pain with equanimity allows us to access the growth that is available to us from discomfort. But resisting discomfort just increases it.

Another delusion you explore is adultism, or the systemic devaluation of children and young adults. So what can we learn from tapping into the curiosity we had as children? For a lot of us, reclaiming that curiosity involves recognizing where it got cut off and where we got told to stop being silly or to stop being childish. What exactly are we saying to people when we say stop being childish? Why is that an insult? What’s wrong with the ways of being as a child? What about being a child are we diminishing? Young people’s epistemologies are wise. They have a sense of curiosity and youthful insouciance that we can learn a lot from. The notion that people who’ve lived longer know more is a delusion. We know what we know, but we’ve also inherited a lot of biases. We’re jaded, and we don’t have beginner’s mind anymore. When we reclaim our beginner’s mind and our youthful selves, we get to get rid of our jadedness.

Right, we can reclaim the part of ourselves that is OK with not knowing. Not knowing can be another form of discomfort, but getting comfortable with it can make a difference. Yeah, it makes us behave with less superiority. We can recognize ourselves as part of the community of beings forever coming to know, forever unlearning what we thought was reality because we’re growing. You’re not growing if you know everything.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

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